One Woman’s Place in Time: Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then


Hannah Gersen (The Millions) addresses the speculations and brouhaha surrounding Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then, focusing on the author’s narrative intention: to write a novel about the passage of time. Here are excerpts with a link to the full review below:

Jamaica Kincaid is annoyed. She spent 10 years writing a novel about the passage of time and everyone seems to think it’s a roman à clef about her marriage — and a vengeful one, at that. At a recent Manhattan reading at Symphony Space, she introduced her new novel, See Now Then, by explaining (among other things) that it was not about a divorce, that none of the characters in her book obtain a divorce, nor do they talk about divorce, nor does the word “divorce” even appear in the book’s pages. Referring to a particularly exasperating review she said, “It is almost as if the person describing the book has read another book entirely.”

I feel fortunate to have read See Now Then before the press feasted on its autobiographical elements. I’ve read almost everything Kincaid has written and knew enough about her life to recognize that Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, the unhappy couple at the center of this novel, were loosely modeled on Kincaid and her ex-husband. I also assumed that the small New England village where Mr. and Mrs. Sweet live was based on Bennington, Vt., where Kincaid lived for many years. But by the time I finished See Now Then, the gossip had burned off and I wasn’t thinking much about Kincaid’s life. Instead, I was in a somewhat altered state as I considered how erratically time passes, with the big slow-moving space of childhood up front and then adulthood rushing past. See Now Then also left me thinking about how strange our conception of the past and future is, how we talk about them as if they are somehow vastly different from the present, when both are made up of the moments we are in the midst of living.

If my impressions sound vague (if not downright pretentious) that’s because See Now Then is a difficult book to write about. It has no plot, there’s nothing to summarize. In some ways it makes sense that journalists have chosen to focus on Kincaid’s biography; it was the only story available. It also makes sense that Kincaid chose to write a domestic novel; she had to anchor her abstract musings in something mundane, like the muck and mire of a failing marriage.

In a recent New York Times profile, Kincaid said See Now Then didn’t come together for her until she thought of the title. The phrase opens the novel, like the beginning of a fairy tale, “See now then, the dear Mrs. Sweet who lived with her husband Mr. Sweet and their two children, the beautiful Persephone and the young Heracles…” What follows is a long description of the view from Mrs. Sweet’s window, a view that includes “the house where the man who invented time-lapse photography lived.” [. . .]

Do we have “a one true self?” Is “the self” the story of a person over time, a kind of narrative, or is it a like a note of music, fixed and unchanging? What effect does intimacy have on the self? What effect does time have? When the past is irretrievable and the future uncertain, how do we live comfortably in the present? These are just a few of the questions raised in See Now Then, questions that could easily come off as rarified but never do, because Kincaid’s story is so grounded in the material. She makes great use of brand names throughout the novel, but doesn’t wield them ironically. Instead she uses them to fix her characters in time and in the landscape. [. . .]

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